Touchless Touching

Pinter's Old Times excavates the passions of love and memory.

My reaction to a Harold Pinter play often follows a predictable pattern.

For the first few minutes, the dialogue strikes me as ordinary, the contradictions and obscurities willful and self-conscious. I find myself questioning whether the playwright is really as brilliant as decades of reviews say he is. Yet by the time I leave the theater, I'm disoriented -- obsessively replaying what I've seen in my mind, my faith in the connection between language and meaning shaken. Stray comments I hear sound like Pinter -- or, rather, they don't, but they're odd and deracinated in the same way the words in his plays are.

There isn't a linear plot to Old Times, currently being staged by Bas Bleu in Fort Collins, but there is a series of events propelled by recognizable human impulses. The characters' words may be deliberately gnomic, but their emotions and motivations are clear.

Kurt Brighton, Denise Perry-Olson and Mare 
Trevathan Philpott in Old Times.
Kurt Brighton, Denise Perry-Olson and Mare Trevathan Philpott in Old Times.

Deeley and Kate are a long-married couple living in a converted farmhouse in the country. Deeley is more fascinated by Kate than she is by him -- or perhaps his curiosity has been aroused by a pending visit from Kate's old friend, Anna.

Anna, now married and living in Italy, is a vital, sensual woman. No sooner has she arrived (actually, she's been present all along, standing with her back to the other actors) than she begins competing with Deeley for Kate's attention. Sometimes the two women reminisce about the days when they were young secretaries in London, giggling, drinking and staying up all night reading Yeats. These brief scenes are compelling and seductive. Sometimes Deeley and Anna talk about Kate while she listens in silence. Twice, she objects that they are discussing her as though she were dead.

Teasing, obfuscatory details are offered throughout. Deeley says he first met Kate during a showing of Carol Reed's film Odd Man Out (the film title resonates with the plot of Old Times); she was the only other person in the cinema. But Anna claims she and Kate attended Odd Man Outtogether. There's a lot of talk about Kate's underpants. She says Anna used to steal them; Anna tells Deeley later that Kate enjoyed lending them to her. When Deeley comes up with a long speech about an evening he spent looking up Anna's dress at a tavern, they note that what he saw was Kate's underwear. The women talk about exchanging mannerisms; there are hints of an attraction between them, and other references to homosexuality surface periodically.

Kate also recalls an instance when she encountered a weeping man in the flat she shared with Anna. She never saw his face. At the end of Old Times, this image takes on life.

Though you can find support for all of these interpretations in the text, I do not think that Kate and Anna represent different aspects of one woman, or that Anna is a ghost who has returned to haunt Kate -- though of course our memories pulsate with ghosts. Nor do I think both women are figments of Deeley's imagination, except in the sense that everyone we encounter is in some sense the creation of our imaginations. The possibility that the entire play takes place in Kate's mind as she sifts through her feelings for Anna and Deeley is more intriguing.

What's clear is that we're witnessing a power struggle, with sex as a weapon in the service of something even more elemental and the locus of power constantly shifting between the three characters. The women almost always have the upper hand -- a situation Deeley tries to reverse with the mildly insulting speech he delivers to Anna about looking up her skirt. Most of the time, Kate, a lover of solitude and silence, remains the pivotal point of the struggle and the object of desire. Perhaps her own struggle is one to possess herself in the face of the others' intrusive demands.

In Pinter's world, however, the self isn't anything essential, but rather a construct existing in a gray, shifting universe, where reality hinges on memory and memory can't be trusted.

At the end of the play, Kate destroys Anna and Deeley; she simply erases them from her universe. Again, though, neither of them leaves the stage.

Director Cathy Reinking has assembled a fascinating cast. As played by Kurt Brighton, Deeley is sardonic but weak, a quibbler struggling for his footing in the deep waters the women keep swirling up around him. You can't help but fall in love with Denise Perry-Olson's glistening vitality and radiant smile as Anna. For at least half the evening, she threatens to stride off with the entire production. Through the first act, Mare Trevathan Philpott, playing Kate, keeps pretty much to herself, though the scenes in which she and Anna reminisce about London are vivid. But the character's inner life is intense and complicated, and when Philpott reveals it in the second act, it's game, set and match for Kate. At the beginning of the act, she has taken a long, sensuous bath, watched through a scrim by Deeley and Anna. Something in the bath seems to release first Kate's sensuality and then her crushing strength. I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that despite the actors' claustrophobic closeness on the tiny Bas Bleu stage, it's only in the play's final moment that one character physically touches another, and the effect is chilling.

 
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